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Jun 22, 2018

Humane Being

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Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Umar Faruq Abd-Allah is an American Muslim theologian, a writer, and a teacher.

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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Humane Being

Learning to Be Human

Night Sky

The following are edited excerpts from an on-stage conversation about the Islamic concept of the human fiţrah, or the natural disposition of the human being, at a public event held at Zaytuna College on April 5, 2018. The conversation was preceded by a talk given by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah.

Hamza Yusuf: First of all, I want to thank you, Dr. Umar, for your talk. The hadith you quoted—“Every newborn enters the world in conformity with nature (fiţrah), and it is the parents who then raise a Jew, Christian, or Magian”—indicates that people are enculturated into customs and beliefs and traditions. But then it says, “The animal is created complete or whole in its nature, so do you notice any mutilations that you do as humans to your animals?” It indicates that the fiţrah is a wholeness in nature that’s there, but the hadith also indicates that there are other possibilities to that inherent or principial nature. I think it’s very confusing for people today to see that human nature is denied. Anthropologists, sociologists, and social scientists have shown that there is so much diversity in the world that [we feel] it is impossible to have some type of human nature that unites us all, as this hadith would indicate.

[The fifth-century BC Greek historian] Herodotus, in The Histories, has a very interesting section where Darius the Great asks about the Greeks, who honor their fathers by burning them, “How much money would it take to get them to honor them by eating them?” And he is told you could give them all the money in the world, but they won’t eat their fathers. They are horrified by that. Then he brings up the Indians, who ate their fathers to honor them, and he says, “How much money to burn your fathers?” And they are horrified by that. Herodotus makes this comment about how customs were so different, even though both were honoring their ancestors. So how do you see this incredible diversity of human expression and its relationship to this idea of a universal nature?

Umar Faruq Abd-Allah: When we talk about the fiţrah, [we should consider that] some of the most important Qur’anic verses about it are in Surah al-Shams and Surah al-Tīn. “By the fig and the olive,” “By the sun and its morning brightness," and so forth—which establish that human beings are perfectly created, and that there’s nothing wrong about them at all. But commentators say that one of the reasons these verses are preceded by the oaths is because the oath in Arabic means this is the literal truth. It’s emphatic; it’s not metaphorical. It’s absolutely so, but it needs that emphasis because no one would believe this. If you look at what people do—especially the evil they do—this takes on so many forms, it’s impossible to comprehend. It’s very clear in our tradition that it is the demonic, more than anything else, that alters the human being.

If we look for proofs of the fiţrah, then I think one of the greatest proofs in the twentieth century is by the great Austrian anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt, who wrote a twelve-volume book in German, The Origin of the Idea of God (Der Ursprung der Gottesidee), which was never translated into English. This book is really amazing because he spent his life documenting all the so-called primitive religions, what we call micro religions. They are kinship groups that don’t have political structures; everything is determined by kinship. They are always very isolated, and there were many of them, especially in the twentieth century, that are not here today. He showed that all of them have the idea of the one God, with no exceptions whatsoever. None of them are polytheistic in the sense of having pantheons, not a single one. He did that also to refute [John] Lubbock and [Edward Burnett] Tylor, who were evolutionist anthropologists—they claimed that religion begins with animism. He showed that is absolutely not true. He himself was a Catholic who believed this was proof of an ancient prophecy, and we [as Muslims] wouldn’t necessarily disagree with him, because these people are so isolated. Yet they have amazing similarities that pertain not just to the belief in the one God, whom they call by beautiful names, but also to their belief in morality. They believe that marriage is given to them by God; they believe in heaven and hell. Some of them even believe in the sirāţ, the path that takes you to the Garden. We would also say that is a manifestation of fiţrah. But as you said about human beings, no one has a greater spectrum of potentials, good and bad, than us.

HY: Let’s talk about something else you brought up. You spoke very beautifully about the Adamic nature, and that human beings are incredibly honored creatures, but in the Qur’an there also is [the concept of] al-insān, which is a difficult word to translate. It’s the intimate being; it’s the being that represents the essence. But the insān is also talked about as being created in angst and anxiety. He is called ¢ajūl in the Qur’an. He is hasty. He is oppressive. So there’s also this other side of the human being in the Qur’an who is actually very negative, and the Christian tradition deals with that with the idea of the fallen human being. How would you address that aspect of the human being?

UFA: This is also part of the fiţrah; [we see] that it has the negative capacity. It is forgetful, and it has to be forgetful, because then it can’t use what its fiţrah is for, which is to rediscover it. When we come into life, we believe that all children until the age of maturity or sometime after that are saints, because they have this fiţrah, and they’re also not morally responsible. They’re not moral agents yet. But as the passions develop in us, then these passions—“the idol of the pig,” “the idol of the dog,” anger, and appetite—will necessarily veil us from who we are.

One of the most important things [to note] is you can come back to the fiţrah. That’s why we say the fiţrah can be altered but it can’t be substituted for something else. When my wife and I were in Michigan, [we met] a woman who was divorced with a child, a feminist, and a law student. She liked us, we liked her, and we always argued. On one spring day, she was talking about how horrible religion has been to women. We say that women are religion’s best friends, but religion is not necessarily their best friend. We were out in an open area, and her son was there. He is about three years old, and he was having a good time. Then he got over to where the cars were parked on the street, and a car was coming down the street really fast, and he was going out between the cars, and she noticed him just at the last moment. What did she say? “Oh my God!” That’s what she said: “Oh my God!” The car slammed on its breaks and it screeched, and there was crying and yelling. He escaped by an inch of his life. You see? This is what the Qur’an says: if anyone calls upon God in dire need, He will answer their prayer. What she did was istighāthah [seeking God’s assistance]. Which was coming out of what? Her fiţrah. When the fiţrah is veiled over, it only shows itself to be what it is in times of great fear, and also in times of great joy.

They say there are no disbelievers in a fox hole. But the ability of the fiţrah to come back is very hopeful for us, isn’t it? This is one of the important things about studying the fiţrah, because people can get so far away from it. We can take a thousand different paths, but you can come back to [the fiţrah] very easily.

Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Hamza Yusuf

Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Hamza Yusuf in Berkeley, California, April 5, 2018

HY: In the premodern world, most civilizations agreed that there was a human nature. Certainly, the Islamic did; even the Indic and the Buddhist traditions would have understood that, as well. And the Buddha-nature was a potential that could be realized in any human being. You also have, certainly in the Christian tradition, the idea of human nature—they might differ on certain aspects of its potentialities, but [they have] essentially the idea of a unified nature. Since the Enlightenment period, [you get] people such as Hume who reject human nature, and then in the twentieth century, you get [the French philosopher Maurice] Merleau-Ponty, who said something like “The only nature that humans share is that they share no nature.” Or you get somebody like [the Spanish philosopher] Ortega y Gasset, who also denies human nature. Steven Pinker, who’s at Harvard, wrote a book called The Blank Slate, arguing that there is a human nature, and who was very troubled by this negation or denial of human nature.

One of the things we’re seeing now is the idea of a fluid nature, that human beings might be born into the wrong body, for instance. So, I’m a female trapped in a man’s body, and [this idea] is now being embraced even in children. This is the argument that [gender] is simply enculturation; that this is nurtural, not natural. How would you address that from this denial of human nature that we’re seeing in the twenty-first century?

UFA: On the level of the horizontal—which is if you live in a world where you only explain things by reference to other things like them, that is, a horizontal universe—there is no meaning. There is no truth, either. Atheism and agnosticism require a horizontal world. Once you put in the vertical connection—which is to look up to heaven and to look to first principles, the law of non-contradiction, the excluded middle, law of identity, causality, possibility, necessity, impossibility—then you’ve got a tent, and then you have a structure, and then you also have meaning. A lot of the things that we see in our time [result from] this Cartesian worldview that we have, whereby we don’t even know what’s out there. We don’t even know that it is out there. We can’t relate to it.

So you have all these social experiments around gender, and it’s very important to study the genealogy of these ideas. Descartes is the one who gives us the concept of mind in its modern sense. His [concept] is sexless, which is a fundamental mistake. But you have Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Wilhelm Reich. The sexual revolution is from [Reich], and he meant revolution. You also have Herbert Marcuse, who was a big deal here in Berkeley in the 1960s, [he wrote] Eros and Civilization. So it’s very important to know who gave you this idea, and where they got it from, and what their first principles were. Much of modern thought doesn’t even have first principles. So we want to get our orientation correct, and we want to know why we believe what we believe.

I think one of the great things about Zaytuna is that we learn our tradition—where we get our ideas and how we know them—and we also learn that the West is a tradition, and that these ideas don’t drop out of the sky. There are certain people behind them. I feel that one of the most eloquent and most objective ways to address these issues is to look at where the ideas come from.

HY: The idea of first principles gets into something that is deeply rooted in the essential nature of the human being: the law of non-contradiction.

UFA: That’s the fiţrah also for us. You know the law of non-contradiction, you know the law of the excluded middle, and you know the law of identity. [You know] this is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, this is Shaykh Abdullah, and they’re not the same. It’s not like you are now him, he is now you.

HY: When I taught logic [to Zaytuna students], I taught them that the law of identity was Popeye’s law: “I am what I am.”

UFA: “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” These laws are very important. If you look at most modern thought— if you look at Stephen Hawking and [the film about him titled] The Theory of Everything—everything is a model. Stephen Hawking would say this chair is not a chair. It’s probably a molecular structure, and my model is what makes it a three-dimensional brown chair. This is Cartesian dualism.

HY: And it’s also Kantian, this idea that there’s no correspondence. I think Muslims are very much committed to correspondence truth.

UFA: That is exactly what the fiţrah is. The fiţrah enables you to know the world, because you’ve got it in you. The critiques of modern science say that physics doesn’t believe in red apples, because it believes there are just molecular structures that you make into an apple, and it tastes sweet and it nourishes you. It’s all about probabilities.

HY: This leads to a type of Gnosticism. I think we’re very much in a gnostic world in many ways. Even despite the materialism, there is an occult element that’s very strong—this idea that none of this is real, that we can’t know reality, that this might be simply a solipsistic worldview in my head. We have young people now going in and shooting up people in schools. It’s a complete divorce from reality [to say] that they’re not really inflicting pain on other people. That’s a very demonic reality.

We have entered into a completely image-based civilization, where the word is being moved. We’re even speaking in icons now. When you enter into that image-based culture, you lose the ability for abstraction, for real abstraction, and the ability to understand essences—like the chair, to understand what makes a chair. The idea that you can have a Chihuahua and a Great Dane, and see the doggy-ness that they share, is amazing. We can look at [people] in the Amazon or in an aboriginal culture who are completely different from us in the expression of their humanity, and yet we can still abstract that essential human nature and see that this, too, is a human being. That’s being lost in people. The image-based culture where people are divorced [from reality] I see—with no offense to the people afflicted with this—as a kind of autism that the Arabs translated as tawaĥĥud, the idea of going into the individual self and losing a sense of other.

What we’re seeing now in the West, and increasingly affecting people in the East, is a real change of this fiţrah. It’s being altered in people. What advice would you give us to protect that principal nature, to nurture it? We have this idea of takhliyah, taĥliyah, and tajliyah, [or] emptying out a vicious character and filling up a virtuous character in order to experience the divine.

UFA: If we look at the hadith on the fiţrah—I have those in my book—one of the things we see in them is that there’s nothing easier for us than to live according to our natures. It’s very easy for us to do that, and there are a thousand ways back to our nature. The traditional Islamic city was a garden city. To be a valid city in Islam according to law, you have to have land, you have to have water on that land or above it, and you have to produce all the food you need for your city in your city. You can’t depend on the outside. We were garden cities, and we had lots of animals. I believe, according to my teachers in our tradition, that without animals, you can’t be human. So contact with the soil, contact with animals, contact with nature, contact with each other—with other human beings, talking, visiting—are very important. These bring us back to our nature.

You should learn the language of nature. The Aborigines, who are incredible people, teach children to listen. If a child asks a question, they say, “Go ask your mother.” What do they mean? Go listen to nature; listen to what nature says about this. And you can do that here [in Northern California]. You have this incredibly beautiful environment. You can find yourself a sitting spot in the forest. Learn the language of the forest, learn the language of the birds. The birds will come to look at you; other animals will come to check you out. So these things are very good for us. It’s about being out of our analytical brain that’s always worrying and always analyzing and concerned about stuff. It’s very easy to come back to the fiţrah.

I spent hours with the Aborigines in Australia, [including] ones who are basically like spirit doctors. Everything they say is knowledge. For example, they don’t have a word for health; they have a word for healing. That’s because you have to heal yourself every day. You have to get the negativity that’s in you out of you. There are vital signs that are being lost. We have to bring ourselves to life, but we have to be life givers, as well. When we do that, we will find a lot of good people in this society—Christians and Jews and others who are on the same pages that we’re on, and [God willing] we will work together in this.

HY: When I was in Mauritania, there was a shaykh whose name was Mohammad al-Amin. They called him Mino. When I visited him, I think I was twenty-two or twenty-three; he was I think in his eighties. He told me, “I’ve never wished for anything to be different than the way it was, but today I wish I was a young man so I could go with you to Murabit al-Hajj to study.” Then he picked up some earth and he said, “My advice to you, don‘t get far away from this. This is your mother, the earth.” I think one of the things that technology is doing is it’s really distancing people from just being with the earth. We’re fortunate to be in an incredibly beautiful environment here. There are a lot of places to go. So I think that’s really good advice about being in nature.

One last point and question to you about beauty and the importance of beauty. When the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, was wearing nice clothes and a good sandal, a man asked him, “Was that from arrogance?” And he said, “No, it’s [because] Allah loves beauty.” One of the things that I find really notable about premodern people is that they adorned things. They didn’t have a lot of things generally, but what they did have they always made beautiful. When I was in Mauritania, their traditional pen was a bamboo pen, but they started using BIC pens. But the women would adorn them with leather and make them very beautiful. So they would take the plastic, and they would just do a design on it and then put little frills at the end of it, and the students would write with these pens. When I asked one of the women why they did that, she said, “It’s so ugly,” referring to the BIC pen.

What is the thing in humans that [makes us do that]? Why not just have a functional carpet, why put the tree of life on the carpet? Why not just have functional walls, why put wainscoting with designs? What is that [impulse to beautify] and how do we restore it? You don’t see the caliphate of God in that human being anymore. How is that restored?

UFA: Tell me any traditional society that was not beautiful. Look at the First Nations of this land, look at the Inuit, the Eskimos. Everything they did was beautiful. Look at the Aborigines. You can’t believe how beautiful everything they make is. And we were like that, too. We were a highly skilled society. We were a society of crafts and guilds, and everything we made was beautiful. That’s because God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.

Beauty is the splendor of truth. That means God doesn’t love ugliness. Ugliness is the mark of falsehood. Ugliness means you’ve gone astray. If you love God, you become internally beautiful. That’s the universal routing. Then what you produce is graceful and beautiful—even the way you walk, even the way you talk. Even the words you use [are beautiful], because you want to use beautiful words. You want to know what your words mean.

It is very important to get back this beauty in everything. That makes us human. Al-Māturīdī, who is one of our great theologians, talks about how God holds us back from evil by putting us in a natural setting. We still do evil, but the natural setting tells us this is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong. What happens, however, when you put people in an ugly setting—broken windows, broken glass, graffiti, rats, and so forth—is that you can’t believe there’s such a thing as truth anymore. You can’t believe there’s such a thing as goodness anymore. That’s why beautification is something we have to do to ourselves.

Beauty is our means, right? Making beauty. One of our teachers who studied metaphysics spent his life studying great metaphysicians. Once he was visiting a particular place in Pakistan, and he came out late at night. He had to be taken to his hotel, but there was nobody [to take him] there. Then out of the darkness came this [rickshaw], and the driver was a poor man. So the teacher spoke to him in Persian—he didn’t know Urdu—and said, “Could you take me to the hotel?” The [driver] answered in Urdu; he could understand [Persian] because the languages are close. The teacher got in the [rickshaw] with this poor man, who began to recite to him from Hafez and Rumi in perfect Persian. [The teacher told me], “In those forty-five minutes, I learned more about metaphysics than I learned in thirty years.” So beauty is the language of truth also. When you put that into poetry, when you put that into rhyme, when you put that into art and into beauty, then everybody gets it. Beauty attracts you then to those meanings.

HY: Thank you. On that note, I want to thank you, Dr. Umar, on behalf of the community here for coming this way. May we benefit from what we’ve heard tonight, and may you all return to your homes safe and sound, and have a blessed sleep with some dream time. May you see beautiful things in your dreams tonight, God willing.

UFA: One of the signs of the end of time is many beautiful dreams that are true. You see, this is one of the ways that God is merciful to you, because you live in a world where so many people don’t believe. So He sends to you these incredible dreams. So may you have beautiful dreams, sweet dreams.


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